During the Octave of Christmas, I had an interesting conversation with someone who thought that the date of Easter should be fixed, “just like Christmas.” The date would be fixed and then Easter could fall on any day of the week, “just like Christmas.”
I asked if she would be comfortable having Easter fall on, let’s say, a Thursday. She assured me that proposition would suit her just fine. There would a few more days off from work, which seemed to be the point, and there would be more time to celebrate and travel for family.
I then asked her if she would be comfortable with Good Friday being on a Tuesday, and that was when her enthusiasm began to wane. “Yeah, that would be a problem. We’d have to rename it I suppose.”
I did not even get into the amount of ink, not to mention blood, that was spilt historically to determine when Easter should be celebrated. We just decided to leave things the way they are; which brings us to this strange occurrence.
So this year Easter falls on April Fool’s Day, which is interesting, and Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day, which is becoming a source of some consternation. This is a convergence that has not occurred since 1945, so it has been 73 years since couples have had to figure out how to celebrate their love while maintaining a day of fasting and abstinence.
For many people, it may seem odd that we celebrate the beginning of our penitential season on a day that is set aside to honor and celebrate romantic love; but as we approach the Lenten season, the convergence on this day is becoming more interesting in its spiritual dimensions.
On Ash Wednesday, we stand on the edge of the wilderness, preparing ourselves to enter more deeply into that wild place. We do this because the desert is a place where the barest minimum is essential, where we are stripped of everything that is superfluous or that draws our attention away from what really matters.
This is the desert of Lent. This year, as every year, we enter the desert, but this year gives us an opportunity to take those steps with a clearer understanding of why. There are several motivations we can have to journey through this desert, and what a person’s motivation is will determine the nature of the journey.
A person could enter Lent because the calendar says it is Ash Wednesday and need to get ashes. They do just that and get on with their lives, perhaps with a few extra prayers, a can or two less of soda and meatless Fridays when they remember, until Easter rolls around. This would work, yet, perhaps Lent could mean a bit more.
A person could enter into the desert convinced and convicted of their own sinfulness, staggering through the wilds thinking only of their own faults and failings, hoping that their penances somehow appease a judging God enough to let them off the damnation hook, even though Easter comes around and they still do not feel free enough to celebrate. This would work, yet, perhaps Lent should not be focused solely on ourselves, what we do, how we sin, how we fail.
The fact that Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day gives us a different perspective. We enter into the desert, motivated to let go of so much, simply because we are learning what loves means, and what love demands.
As I sit with couples preparing for marriage, as I watch and journey with families, I am always amazed at how much sacrifice is involved. People give up homes, jobs, opportunities, freedom and choices, and why? They do it because they love and are loved. They make these sacrifices, often joyfully, because of the love they have discovered, and how that love has changed their lives.
So we are given a gift this year, to being our Lenten time in the wilderness with a vivid reminder that it is all about love. There, we joyfully strip ourselves of distractions, there we learn to focus on things more urgent then our sinfulness, there we remember the place of love in our lives. It is love that gives us vision, courage and compassion. This year, the ashes are a simple Valentine’s gift for our True Love, to remind and encourage us.
We remember the words of the prophet Hosea, who bids us enter the desert that we might find again our First Love, and allow that love to make us anew.